Q&A: Further up the ‘Creek’: Eugene and Dan Levy talk more about Canadian comedy
Some weeks back, on the occasion of the premiere of the still-ongoing second season of the very, very funny Canadian-origin comedy “Schitt’s Creek,” I published an interview with its father-and-son creators and co-stars Eugene and Dan Levy. (Episode eight, of 13, debuts tonight on Pop.)
Much was said that did not find its way into print then; here, for fans and the curious and anyone just looking for something to read, is some of the rest of it.
For the uninitiated curious, the series concerns the adventures of a formerly wealthy family forced by circumstance to live in a small, strange town they also happen to own — it’s a kind of dark “Green Acres,” or “The Beverly Hillbillies” in reverse.
Along with the Levys, who play father and son Johnny and David Rose, the series also stars Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy’s castmate in the great late-'70s, early-'80s sketch show “SCTV” and fellow player in the Christopher Guest stock company, as Johnny’s wife, Moira; Chris Elliott as the mayor; Dan’s sister Sarah Levy as town waitress Twyla; Annie Murphy as Dan’s screen sister, Alexis; and Emily Hampshire (also currently seen in “12 Monkeys”) as Stevie, who manages the motel where the Roses have come to live.
Though more expressly affectionate and admiring, the Levys have a dynamic not wholly divorced from their screen characters — the effusively indulgent parent, the quietly tolerant son.
As we begin, Eugene Levy is discussing his clothes.
Eugene Levy: I’m in a suit that really buttons when you button it — it’s tight — that my son put me in. He took me shopping a little while back; he suggested some things, and they’re all great. It just means I can’t eat.
Dan Levy: You look sharp.
Eugene: Well, thank you.
Dan: It’s great; it still fits. A good thing.
Eugene: We went on a shopping trip, a year ago or less.
Dan: It was like three years ago. It was for an “American Pie” junket, and we went and did a suit shop.
Eugene: Three years — it shows you how long I wear stuff. ‘Cause this to me is like I just got it.
So how were you dressing before this?
Eugene: Badly. I thought I wasn’t too bad, but apparently I was dressing badly.
Dan: Listen, everyone can improve.
Eugene: When I was in high style, there was a shop in Toronto called Brogue. You could get everything there: formal, casual, sweaters, shirts, suits. And they had a great coffee bar, and as soon as you go in, “Can we get you a coffee? Can we get you something?” And you go in and you sit down, have a lovely coffee. It’s a nice, easy-going process. They take you around, you look. “What are you looking for?” “I don’t know, I could use some shirts.”
Dan, when were you first aware of what your father did for a living, and that it might be different from what your friends’ fathers did?
Dan: I guess early on, but there was an active choice made on my parents’ part to keep us in Toronto while he went away and did what he did. I was aware of what the job was, but there was a big distance between being immersed in it and just having a vague awareness of what it was all about.
Eugene: There was really nothing I did in terms of work that they would have seen as young kids. They were too young for just about any of the movies I was doing; I don’t think they would have appealed to Dan and Sarah.
Dan: There were select “SCTV” sketches that we responded to. It was much later that I was able to look at what he’s done and what it meant to people.
Were you were aware that your father was famous?
Dan: In the sense of occasionally being out and people would come up and say stuff.
Eugene: You didn’t like that too much.
Dan: I didn’t like that.
Eugene: We didn’t know why, but he was uncomfortable with people coming up to me, you know.
Dan: I was quite shy. The idea of not having anonymity with your family is a very strange experience, so the idea that there were eyes on you — and this was in Canada, so I can’t imagine what it was like for … Tom Cruise. It was very uncomfortable; for a long time, I sort of distanced myself from it because I just didn’t like it.
Did you have other careers in mind as a kid?
Dan: No. I think I’d always been interested in performing. That was just what naturally happened as a kid, putting on plays; I would write and produce all our plays in high school and that was —
Eugene: He did amazing stuff in high school.
Dan: [Sounding a lot like David Rose] Sure, uh-huh, go.
Eugene: They actually wrote — I can jump in any time ‘cause I’ve got a few years on you. No, honestly, teachers went on strike and nobody was looking after doing plays, and they got together and they did their own stage version of the movie “Clue.” And it was really, really great.
Dan: A really nice season finale of “Glee” is what it felt like. I knew that I had passions and inclinations, but I didn’t connect that with the job necessarily. There was a confidence thing where I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of. ...
That’s why I went into film production instead of theater because I didn’t want to audition for the theater program, but I wanted that world. I just didn’t know where I fit in it. Where funnily enough, now being able to write something and being involved with it as an actor turns out to be exactly what I wanted to keep doing.
Eugene: Even the films you did in film school had a real funny bent to them, like quirky humorous things.
What were they about?
Dan: There was a short I wrote about a guardian angel that was sent to Earth to protect a guy that just lived a really boring life, and eventually the guardianship got a bit boring; and he turned a blind eye for one minute, and the guy slips into a coma. They were all sort of dark and weird. But again, I was in the program because I didn’t want to audition for theater.
Eugene: I remember the very first thing that Dan did in high school. It was a revue, and they needed little sketch pieces they could take from wherever to put into the show. So we talked about it. And getting information was always tough, like, “What’s going on?” “Nothing.” “What’s the play about?” “Well, it’s a play. It’s a revue, they need pieces.” I said, “Well, I could go to Second City; there are a lot of great pieces there that relate to your school. There was a great piece, a professor-student piece that was so funny.” I didn’t write it or create it, but I did it over the years, And he said, “OK, I’ll take a look.”
And so he read it, he liked it, and every few days I’d say, “So, how is it?” “Yeah, no, it’s good.” I’d say, “Well, if you need any help, just let me know.” “OK, I will.” And we get closer to the event — “Are you sure you don’t want me to help you with the rehearsal? I can do the lines.” “No, I think I got it.” I said, Well, I actually did the piece. I kind of know the timing of it; I know the pauses.” He said, “I got it.”
Anyway, cut to the night, and he had his own take on it; he did the piece as a kind of Keanu Reeves impersonation. And my wife and I were there and we were really nervous, didn’t know what he was going to do, and he came out and killed. It was the funniest impersonation. He knew exactly what his own thing was, didn’t need me, my old-fashioned take on how it should be timed or anything else. That was the first thing we saw him in in a public kind of way. But I never thought they were actually going to go into [show business].
Is this the first acting you’ve done together?
Dan: I hosted something at MTV. We did a spoof of a “My Super Sweet 16" episode I did for my actual 26th birthday, and it was the first time I had ever sort of acknowledged who my dad was, ‘cause I spent a very long time on MTV, not hiding it, per se, but not necessarily wanting to promote it.
So the first thing that we did was going to buy a Mercedes — I was taking him to buy a Mercedes for me for my birthday, and he wasn’t interested in buying me a Mercedes, and that was sort of the first —
Eugene: — first thing that we did together.
It was a script you wrote?
Dan: It was improvised.
Eugene: It was improvised, but that’s what the premise was; you’re asking for a car, and I think it’s an insane idea. It was fun because he was doing very well in the scene, like, just playing the scene, not trying to be funny, just playing the premise of the scene, which is what a good improvisation is.
So “Schitt’s Creek” began with your bringing something you’d written to your father?
Dan: It was more an idea, a premise, really that I brought over one afternoon, and we started working on it and seeing what it could be. And quite quickly it became something, and one thing led to another and then we were shooting a presentation pilot.
Did you have your cast in place for the pilot?
Eugene: We had some people in place. Catherine certainly was the one person we really wanted on the show. It was tough to get her because she really didn’t want to commit to a long-term television thing, it was a very scary prospect for her, and it looked like we were not going to get her.
And then Dan called me, and I said, “Well, I’m thinking of calling somebody else for this part,” and he said, “Do you think you might want to call Catherine back, just to double check?”
I said, “I just talked to her, and she really does not want to do it.” “Why don’t we call her back just to see if she would do it, if we could really, really sweeten that pitch?”
So I called her back and said, “Listen, Catherine, can you do the pilot and there’s no strings? Do the pilot and if the show goes, you don’t have to do the show, but we’d love it if you could just come in and do the pilot and help us out.” And she said, “OK.”
Then the pilot became a series, and I had to make that phone call. So, it went well. It’s such a great platform for her.
Dan: That character is so fresh, and she gets to run free. It’s amazing.
Eugene: It’s I think the best work Catherine has — listen, everything she does is great, but this character and what she brings to it is amazing. I mean it really is; it’s just so funny. Honestly, the whole cast — same with Annie Murphy, playing Alexis, it’s like her first job.
Dan: We’ve been very lucky with the cast, and that’s all you can really hope for really. It’s just casting ultimately; it’s finding the right people. And you realize in those casting sessions how easily a show can go astray through [the wrong] casting.
Did you feel that you were getting what you had on the page or seeing something that filled out the characters in a way you hadn’t expected?
Dan: A bit of both. When Emily came in, it was between her and one other actress who was a very close friend of mine, and they both did amazing jobs. But there was something about the darkness that Emily brought to that character that was so necessary for Stevie — because I think she is David just in a very different context ultimately; they don’t know how to connect with one another in a way that’s completely articulate, but they know there’s some kind of cosmic pull.
And then when Annie came in, that was a situation where what brought into the room was not on the page; she came in with such an ease and this innate likability, which is so important for that character. It’s a tough one to win audiences over with, but she played it with such naiveté that you couldn’t help but think, “She doesn’t know any better. It’s not her fault; there’s nothing malicious.” It’s a relief, too, when that person walks into the room; you know the search is over.
Tell me about Sarah, your real sister.
Dan: She was actually in theater school legitimately — unlike me, who was too scared to do it — and has been out here, living the life. And the part was in her wheelhouse, and it felt right and she ran with it.
Eugene: Sarah again was acting in high school, and even then, when I went to see her stuff, I could tell that unlike the other kids in the play, she’s sticking with her character; she’s not distracted.
Dan: Says every other parent in the audience.
Eugene: Yes, well maybe — but they don’t know. I know; they’re bankers and things. I’m right there on the floor watching these people act, and I’m saying, “Boy, she’s right in the scene; she’s sticking with the scene.” When you see Twyla, you just smile. She’s just a ray of sunshine. She’s like the little heartbeat of the show. You feel good when she’s there.
Is there anything between you and your sister that’s reflected in the relationship between David and Alexis?
Dan: I think that anyone who has a sibling can identify with how we’ve written these two. I basically pulled all the drama from my teenage years with my sister and projected them on to full-grown adults. We call them “kids” on the show, but they’re completely emotionally stunted on every level. Yeah, that was informed by my experience with my sister and just how dark the sibling rivalry can get. And yet at the same time, it’s not really anger; it’s the surface drama that comes about with a brother and sister or with any sort of sibling dynamic.
Is there an exclusively Canadian kind of fame that doesn’t depend on success in the U.S. for validation, or are you always looking south?
Dan: I think there are Canadians who have made a choice to live and work in Canada and a community of actors, directors and writers who —
Eugene: — make a living.
Dan: — make a living, and that’s what they want. And then you have the other school that come down for pilot season and try to get onto American shows and get into American films.
Eugene: You have to have that desire to want to compete in the business — not just the Canadian business, but when you’re in comedy, you want to compete with everybody. So there was always that desire to come down to Hollywood and see exactly what you could do, to know that the jokes you’re coming out with are not just restricted to your own country; you want to know that your humor is more universal than that.
And luckily for us, Second City opened in Toronto in 1973, and that was a tremendous training ground that opened your mind up to the kind of comedy that could hit anywhere, not just the more provincial kind of comedy. The first show I ever did was an American show that came to Toronto — “Godspell” — and right after that, Second City came.
Were there any slow times for you after “SCTV”?
Eugene: Not really. I was able to work. I’d do some things down here in Los Angeles, and then we’d go back to Toronto, where we were raising our family and I was able to get work in Toronto. I was directing; I was doing some acting. But you do whatever you can to work.
How does the success of the show compare in Canada to the United States? I get the impression it’s a big hit there.
Eugene: It’s a big hit there.
Dan: It’s pretty amazing because I think so rarely Canadian shows are embraced in Canada. I mean, there are a lot of Canadian shows, but very few of them “hit.” The Canadian audience is very critical, particularly of their own content. So it’s been really validating for us as Canadians to see Canadian audiences warm to it as much as they have.
Eugene: It’s pretty big, really. Because “SCTV” was so, so big in Canada — I mean, it made a mark down here as well, but it didn’t hit the same vein, so to speak. So that was a big thing with Catherine and I headlining a show; that gave you a lot of impetus right out of the gate.
Dan: What’s been most validating is just seeing the kind of commitment people have and the attachments that they’ve formed to this strange family.
Eugene: The fans of the show are really major fans.
That’s how “SCTV” was for some of us. It came on at a strange hour —
Eugene: One o’clock.
It was like a message from Mars.
Eugene: It was probably like the first time I saw [Monty] Python. “What is it?” Then, “Wow.” And you kind of become addicted.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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